LT. GOV, SENATORS ROLL OUT SCHOOL CHOICE BILL
(AUSTIN) — Parents could receive part of the money spent on public education to send their kids to a different school under a plan unveiled by a group of Senators and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick. Patrick said that this plan seeks to give all students in Texas the right to seek a quality education. "We already have school choice in Texas. If you are rich enough, you send your child to private school," he said. "But if you're not wealthy enough to do that, then you don't have any options. Every parent has a right to send their child to the school that they think is best for them."
Senator Larry Taylor of Friendswood will carry the bill aiming to create the school choice program.
Senate Bill 3 aims to create school choice through two methods. The first will allow parents to receive a portion of the money intended to educate their child at a traditional public school, which averages about $9,000 per year. This money would be placed in a trust account and could only be used for educational costs, like private school tuition or online courses. The amount received is based on need, ranging from 60 percent of the cost for educating a student at a public school in a year for families above twice the poverty line, to 75 percent for poor families, and 90 percent for families with disabled children. Bill author and Senate Education Committee chair Senator Larry Taylor of Friendswood says that the state will split the cost with districts in the first year. He added that the lack of school choice programs in Texas is holding the state back. "Thirty other states have school choice programs across this nation. We are behind the curve," said Taylor. "If Texas wants to remain economically sound…we need to pass school choice legislation, to give our students the opportunity to receive a great education tailored to their specific needs."
The second method would allow the creation of tax credit scholarship accounts, where people or businesses can donate money to the education of eligible children in exchange for a tax write-off. This amount would be capped at $100 million per year to start and would be open to kids who are below the 200 percent federal poverty line threshold, are in foster care or are the children of service members. The bill must now be approved by the Education Committee before it can head to the full Senate for consideration.
Also Monday, Senators on the Finance Committee were disappointed to learn that there has been scant progress in keeping track on some of the state's most vulnerable children. At an interim hearing last October, members were shocked to learn that more than five hundred kids at risk of great bodily harm or even death were lost to the state's Child Protective Services system. Following that meeting, the state acted to increase funds to hire investigators and case workers to help locate and protect these children. These funds were conditional on performance measures: ninety percent of priority one kids must be seen face-to-face by a CPS case worker within 24 hours by May 1, with that threshold rising to 95 percent by August 1.
The Department of Family and Protective Services Executive Director Hank Whitman was before Senate Finance for his agency's appropriation requests, and again Senators were dismayed to learn that there are still 400 to 450 of these priority one kids unaccounted for. Whitman said that even with the help of law enforcement, it's very difficult to locate these children. That didn't sit well with Finance Chair Jane Nelson. "We gave you everything you said you need to do that. That is our highest priority. We need to find these kids," she told Whitman. "We're going to continue to prioritize these kids, but hear me: we've given you what you said you need….Your agency gets a total of $3.8 billion. If I had my way, we'd put all 3.8 billion in to finding these kids and protecting them. If we don't do that, what else is important?"
The Senate will reconvene Tuesday, January 31 at 10:30 a.m.